CLAS 436
Demigods: Nature, social theory, and visual imagination in art and literature, ancient to modern
Last Offered Spring 2021
Division I
Cross-listed ENVI 436 / ARTH 436
This course is not offered in the current catalog

Class Details

Horse-men, cat-women, goat-men, tree-women, man-bulls, fish-girls, snake-people–cross-species compound creatures are everywhere in ancient Greek and Roman art, poetry, and culture. The conceptual or cognitive value of those “demigods” has changed over time. In art, demigods have frequently been reduced to the status of decoration, and in literature, they have become generic markers of fantasy. But they are hardly without meaning. Embodied in satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, and other demigods is a vision of an alternative evolutionary and cultural history. In it, humans and animals live together. The distinction between nature and culture is not meaningful. Male and female are equal. The industrial revolution never happens. This course traces the history of demigods from its origins in ancient Greek art and poetry until today. We pay special attention to three points: the relationship between mythology of demigods and ancient political theory about primitive life; evolving conceptions of nature, the origin of species, and the environment; and the capacity of the visual arts to create mythology that has a limited literary counterpart. The first half of the course examines the origins and character of the demigods, in works of ancient art, e.g. the François vase and the Parthenon, as well as ancient texts, including Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We examine relevant cultural practices, intellectual history, and conceptions of nature, in texts such as Euripides’ Bakchai, Plato’s Phaidros, and Lucretius’ De rerum natura. We will consider in detail ancient theories of the origins of species as well as the relationship between nature and human culture. The second half of the course investigates the post-classical survival of demigods. We consider the “rediscovery” of demigods in the work of Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Dürer, and Titian, and the rediscovery of ancient materialist theories of nature and culture. We consider in detail the important role played by demigods in the formation of Modernism in art and literature. Key texts include Schiller, “Naive and sentimental poetry,” Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Mallarmé, “L’Apres midi d’une faun,” Aby Warburg’s cultural-historical texts, and Stoppard’s Arcadia. Problems include the relationship between nymphs and prostitutes in Manet, and the meaning of fauns and the Minotaur in Picasso. We conclude with demigods in popular culture such as the Narnia chronicles or Hunger Games.
The Class: Format: seminar; Lecture and discussion. When possible, we will meet outdoors in person; when that is not possible, we will meet online.
Limit: 15
Expected: 10
Class#: 4964
Grading: yes pass/fail option, no fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: The requirements of the course include: attendance and participation in discussion; preparing summaries/analyses of reading assignments for discussions; one presentation on a research project, and one 20-page paper on the research project.
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: art history majors, graduate students in art history, classics majors, then any interested student
Unit Notes: This course will satisfy the seminar requirement in art history.
Distributions: Division I
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
CLAS 436 Division I ENVI 436 Division I ARTH 436 Division I
Attributes: ARTH pre-1800
ENVI Humanities, Arts + Social Science Electives

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